What should any old –at least familiarized with the new wave scene- music aficionado tell about The Chameleons? Is there any argument or information that has not been asserted or stated concerning their musical presence, history, sound and finally, contribution to new wave genre’s advancement? Probably not! Nonetheless, we will go on positing:
Chameleons were, are and will be one of the most important acts of the ‘80s new wave era and a group that managed via their genuinely sentimental sound and existentially wakeful lyrics to speak straight to our hearts & minds. In this way, why shouldn’t we just consider them as an exceptional point of musically defined existential reference, as a sort of an essential ‘Sentimental Anchor’?
In response to their forthcoming show in Athens (December 2009, just before the dawn of another year and decade), the Lost Echoes team decided that it should offer both a ‘behind-the-stage’ look of Chameleonsvox and a small pre-taste with regard to the aforementioned performance’s ambience by approaching the band and asking for an interview. I was personally asked by the team to prepare / conduct this interview and suffice to say, I gladly responded. Here you may as well find and study the answers to a series of questions made to Mark Burgess, Chameleons’ (back then) and Chameleonvox’s (now) singer.
We will be all looking forward to experiencing this performance!
Take care out there,
IT >> Greetings Mark! It is a real honor having you with us for this interview. I guess, you have pointed these things out many times before however, just for a start, could you offer us some ‘images & words’ concerning Chameleons’ first years back in 1981? What was the impetus that forced you to form the group? Furthermore, which is the moment that you can most strongly recall and why?
I was invited to join Dave and Reg. They had a Prog Rock band called ‘YEARS’ and I’d formed a three piece Punk band called ‘THE CLICHES’, we were sharing a rehearsal space for a while. We’d known each other since being young children and had met up again at a few Punk gigs around town. The guitarist in my band was going to Oxford University, and the drummer, well he hardly ever turned up anyway even for gigs, so eventually Dave asked me if I’d join him and Reg in forming a new band. I had to think about it really because I had plans of my own, but in the end we were all such good mates that I said yes, and we became The Chameleons after getting a John Peel session and he’d told us we needed a name. That was it really.
IT >> Many of the group’s aficionados have considered that the literary part of your music has played a crucial role in defining the Chameleons’ sound! Either depicting inner feelings and thoughts, daily-life experiences or both, it is always characterized by an existential wakefulness! Could you specify some of your strongest sources of inspiration? In addition, could you tell us which of the Chameleons’ songs you consider among the most important ones from a lyric standpoint and why? Suffice to say, you can name more than one if you like!
Okay well I’ve really been most inspired by writers that expressed a kind of alienation from the way our civilisation is heading, people like William Blake for example. These kinds of writers always seemed to sense a deeper reality going on that most of us were completely unaware of, so that’s what I always tried to tune into. I’m very into instinctive work, where you just let ideas flow naturally, rather than intellectualising about it too much. I never really sat down and said well, you know, now I’m going to write something about so and so, I just let the words flow without really thinking too much about where they were coming from and then I’d look at it much later and understand it more. With The Sun and the Moon record, that changed a bit, I had definite ideas of what I wanted to get across, but with Chameleons it was all very ‘stream of consciousness…
IT >> Judging from the Chameleons’ story and first break-up (1987), following projects (e.g., the Sun and the Moon, Mark Burgess & the Sons of God, collaboration with Yves Altana) and the present one of Chameleonsvox, you seem to be more closely related to John Lever than to Dave Fielding or Reg Smithies! Could you tell us a little bit about the relationship between the band members through all those years? Moreover, what is the relationship’s present status?
Well with Dave, it was great at the beginning, then as the drugs kicked in, we kind of drifted and became fairly diametrically opposed to each other. I don’t really know why that was, but gradually we’d drift further and further apart. He had a destructive streak that seemed to want to pull us back whenever we got close to really getting anywhere and I came to suspect that he was afraid that the band might be too successful. I don’t think he could have really handled that at all. These days, well I wouldn’t use the word enemies, but we don’t see eye to eye. I’ve always found him to be very unstable.
Reg and I were enstranged from each other for years as he was always very close to Dave. He’d be caught in the middle of this tense struggle for most of our career together, but these days we get on very well. His focus is his family these days, he has a young 8 year old son Joe, and a four year old daughter Tess, and they’re really beautiful kids. But yeah I don’t see him THAT often but I go over when I can. John of course I’ve worked with much more often. It was John, along with Andy Clegg, that put the Sun and the Moon together, and I worked with him on and off on projects that I did with Yves Altana, The Sons of God thing for one. I mean I’ve always got along with John. It got rocky in 2003 when we were supposed to come here and Kwasi and myself were the only ones in the band that actually turned up for it. That was hard to get past, but we did. He had his reasons and later I accepted them and we just got past it. I think that’s what mature people should do, you know. When we have arguments with our friends as kids, you don’t speak for about a week, then it’s okay. As adults, it seems like it takes YEARS to put things right again. That’s the bullshit of growing older. Kids have more sense.
IT >> The Chameleons have performed numerous times including live shows during their short nonetheless, productive resurrection period (1999-2003). Grounded on all this, which would you consider as one of the most memorable performances? Please describe us that performance!
It’s hard really to pick single performances out, there have been so many shows and so many great shows. But if I had to pick some I’d pick three.
1. The Loft, Berlin 1983, which actually came out as a live album on Imaginary Records at the end of the 90’s.
2. The Ritz in New York City in 1986 when we were touring with the Mighty Lemon Drops. I don’t know, it just the perfect gig, everything went right, the band was totally into it for a change and the audience was superb. I was high as a kite on pure adrenaline for about 24 hours straight. I couldn’t sleep.
3. The Academy, Manchester in 2000. It was like we’d never been gone, the biggest show we’d ever done in Manchester and we broke all records for the place. It was just an amazing feeling walking out to that welcome and seeing all those people excited to see us and hear us.. We kind of felt vindicated for all the years we’d been ignored by the music media.
IT >> The group has also made cover versions of a few songs (e.g., Bowie’s “John, I’m only dancing”, Alternative TV’s “Splitting in two”, Beatles’ Tomorrow never knows”). If Chameleons were able to perform with another group (or artist) no matter if it is still active or not, which would that be and why? Further, as a music fan, which would be the live show that you most strongly love to attend and haven’t?
Well the two answers are one and the same really. I can’t speak for John because I met him much later in life and he had tastes that were uniquely his own as far as we were concerned. I mean we were all into different things. But the one that Dave, Reg and myself all mutually admired was David Bowie; and the performance I regret missing more than any other was Ziggy Stardust at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1973. Reg’s sister got them tickets, but the guy that was supposed to get mine, didn’t get out of bed early enough and they were all gone, so they saw it, and I missed it.
IT >> Moving along similar lines, there were many great artists and groups that surfaced during the ‘80s! In fact, focusing on the new wave and post punk genres, there was a plethora of acts and personalities all exemplifying the aforementioned sounds in a unique manner! Are there any specific acts or artists from that period that you appreciate the most in terms of music and attitude?
Overall I’d have to say Nick Cave. The first time I saw him was with the Birthday Party in Den Haag in 1982 and I just thought he was fuckin’ sensational, you know, and then later came the Bad Seeds and he just went from strength to strength. I mean nothing could match the intensity of that first BP performance, but as a song writer the man is just, you know, WOW! But really there was so much interesting stuff going on in that time it’d be very difficult to isolate any particular one.
IT >> Turning to the present now, Chameleonsvox is a new artistic endeavour. Will it be promoted as per its covers on Chameleons’ music staff or will it musically separate itself eventually and head its own way?
Well Chameleons Vox is the name I’ll be working under with whoever wants to work with me on it, so eventually yeah I’m hoping we’ll do some interesting new stuff, but for now I’m back playing Chameleons material and I’m enjoying it more than I have for years. The people that I play with alongside John right now, LOVE the material very much, there’s a lot of passion in the way they play it, which wasn’t there with the original band to be honest. They played that stuff without really thinking about it, so from my point of view, it’s much more enjoyable these days.
IT >> Thus, should we expect Chameleonsvox to be a long-term project? Perhaps, wait for a release of new material with John playing the drums?
It’s hard to say who’ll be involved. I’d love John to be involved with it obviously, and we’re planning an event in LA for next year that’s Chameleons focused, but to be honest I don’t look that far ahead. I’m just making it all up as I go along, I don’t make long term plans anymore.
IT >> Apart from Chameleonsvox there is the BIRD project along with Yves and Achim that you are working on! Could you tell us a little bit more about BIRD as well as its future plans?
It was just a name to work under to do a few gigs with New Model Army a few years ago, and we did a co-headline with my old mate Dave Gedge and The Wedding Present. I wanted to call that Chameleons Vox, but Yves didn’t like it, so I chose my school nickname instead. Achim Faerber was on drums, from Project Pitchfork, and he was great to work with, a top-class drummer, but I had to book him like six months ahead of any show and it’s not the way I work. I like to be spontaneous with what I do and Achim was working so much, he had such a full calendar, that it makes spontaneity difficult. Besides I was in Hamburg, Yves was in the south of France, and Achim was in Berlin, so it made rehearsals and what not somewhat problematic.
IT >> You have recently published a book (2008) titled “View From A Hill”. How did you feel while retrieving all those images, moments, thoughts, from memory and writing them down? What was the easiest and most difficult part respectively in writing this book?
Well it helps if you keep diaries as I’ve always done, HA. It was great, it was something that I’d tinker with when I didn’t have anything else going on, and then my father was diagnosed terminally ill and so I rushed to finish it in time, so he could read it before he went, which he did and he loved it. Yeah you get a very good perspective on your life, the journey of life you know, and it made me hungry for more adventures HA!
IT >> Moreover, this book was sold out very quickly. How did you feel for this impressive response from the fans? Is there any chance that it will be republished for those who didn’t manage to get it?
Yeah the book’s completely sold out now, it sold all 1500 copies, which I’m very happy about. I was astounded that it sold that many, I mean I don’t know, to some it might not seem that many, but if a big publisher sold that many copies of a hardback first edition, they’d be over the moon and it’d be on the best sellers list, so yeah I was VERY surprised, pleasantly so. I don’t know, I’ve been asked about a second paperback edition many times so it might be that one day it’ll happen. I’d probably edit it down a bit more, revise it, maybe even add some more. It took a great deal of focus and energy to do it, and I wasn’t able to focus on music over the last two years I was preparing it, it needed all my attention. Right now I’d like to focus on music again for a while.
IT >> Now, it’s a real pleasure knowing that you regard Athens among your favourite cities. Could you tell us why? Have you been many times in Greece apart from that in 2003 when you performed in Athens?
Well I’ve been to the islands on holidays yeah and I’ve always loved doing that. I’d only ever been to Athens once before on my way back from Jerusalem in 86, and it was a fast in and out, although a very significant event in my life. The last time I was there I was under a lot of stress, because the band hadn’t showed up and we wanted to give people a show, so I was locked away all day trying to get one together, but I just LOVED the people that came, the ones I met, the city itself and it’s energy; I adore
Greek food, the climate, the vibe. It’s just great.
IT >> Really, tell us about your experience during that live in the Greek capital! I assume it was a somewhat difficult period (a little bit before the second and final break-up of the Chameleons). How do you recall this performance in terms of atmosphere and audience response?
Well some of the English contingent that came out for it tried to rubbish it back home on the websites, you know. Saying everybody left and the gig was rubbish. That’s not my recollection at all. I remember that a lot stayed and by the end, we couldn’t get off the stage. My most vivid memory were the two Athenians that had opened the show. They’d watched me during the rehearsal in the afternoon trying to put songs together with Kwais and the road crew and they told me that they knew the song ‘Second Skin’ and wanted to play the guitars. So I said yeah, sure. And at the end of the show they got up and played the song with us, and I looked over, and one of the guys was actually in tears, it was such a special moment for him, and for me for that matter.
And the warmth of that audience, and the people that had organised it, it just blew me away. So I loved it, despite the stress. After the show I had a few days on Hydra to recover, met them again on the way back and I’ve never forgotten the welcome, the warmth and the hospitality they showed me, it was very touching. Of course I didn’t get to see the Acropolis thanks to Tony fuckin’ Blaire. He was on a diplomatic visit and they closed it to the public so he could walk around without fear of getting eggs thrown at him or something.
IT >> The Greek audience is anxiously looking forward to your forthcoming live show in December. Would you like to send it a message?
Yeah I’d like to say to them don’t worry, we’re DEFINITELY going to show up for the show.
IT >> I would sincerely like to thank you for this interview. Of course, the final words are yours.
Your’re very welcome mate. A few words? Yeah. I’m really hoping that it will be a performance that you’ll remember and that we’ll remember, and that we’ll get invited back again, because sincerely, I love visiting Greece, it’s awesome.
Interview by Ioannis Τheodorakis
Answers by Mark Burgess